INTRODUCING Justin Chenette: The Youngest Openly Gay State Representative in the United States
“I wore braces, I was fat and I was flamboyant,” Justin said. “That’s a bad combination to have in middle school.”
He didn’t expect to deal with the same middle school bullies as he ran for public office in his town of Saco, Maine.
“There were eleven instances where my campaign signs were removed from yards, spray-painted with “GAY” and my face crossed out,” Justin told me. “They then put the signs up in more highly trafficked areas, like highways.”
On November 6, in Saco Maine, a small community outside of Portland, and after being outspent by his 59-year-old Republican opponent Roland Wyman by a margin of almost 3-to-1 in the general election, 21-year-old Justin Chenette won 60% of the vote to become the youngest openly gay state representative in the United States of America.
HOW IT HAPPENED
Justin says he was good friends with the current Maine State representative, Linda Valentino.
“I’m more friendly with older women,” Justin admits. “She’s like a second mom to me.”
He said when he decided to run for her seat twelve months ago, he submitted the paperwork without telling anyone. Justin didn’t care that the Democratic “establishment” prefers to be consulted with before a campaign is announced.
“I had to go back and forth between Lyndon State College in Vermont and Saco, Maine,” Justin said.
“I’d go to school Wednesday through Friday,” Justin said. “And the rest of the time I was campaigning.”
“Beyond attending events, I started to volunteer at those events,” Justin said. “I really wanted to campaign as a public servant.”
HOW HE RAISED THE CASH
On top of travel and campaigning costs, Justin refused public money — a total of $5,200 — for his campaign.
“It was better to save tax payer money than anything else,” Justin said. “I fundraised $11,000 myself.”
Still, Justin graduates with a four year degree from Lyndon State next month.
JOURNALIST meets POLITICIAN meets COMMUNITY ACTIVIST
Justin and I have known each other for several years. I first found out about him when I saw him interviewing the former Governor of Maine, John Baldacci.
“I gave up a more lucrative career to do this,” Justin admits. “I make $13,000 a year the first year as a representative.”
“It’s going to be tough,” Justin says. “It’s like high school amplified. Breaking through will take time.”
He says he’s going to unite and make moves as a team player.
He pauses for a moment, thinking about his answer. He reflects on it.
“You know what, I’m a broadcaster, I’m used to asking the questions,” Justin says. “Maybe I’ll start out by asking some penetrating questions to make sure we have the best legislation possible.”
As we wrap up the conversation, Justin is quieter now. These are always my favorite parts of the interviews. I don’t say much, and just let the person I’m interviewing speak freely.
“Relationships come and go, but if you look back at each of them, they prepare you to take on what you’re going through at this instant,” Justin says.
He switches subjects and talks about the American dream. Re-claiming that dream was a big talking point in his campaign. I challenge him, suggesting that the American Dream is an American Illusion.
“We’re trying to perpetuate this idea of being happy, while life around you seems to be miserable,” Justin says. “But how do you achieve that happiness, that dream?”
“It’s about letting your inner self shine.”